The global marine litter crisis – who gets the blame?

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 15 June 2018

The public are more likely to blame the current global marine litter crisis on retailers, industry and government, according to new research led by the University of Plymouth.

Euro beach litter
© Bo Eide

We are all part of the problem and therefore we must all be part of the solution…….but up until now nobody has been keen to put their hands up and say they can do better

Emma Cunningham,
MCS Senior Pollution Campaigns Officer.

The Europe-wide study asked more than a 1,100 members of the public about their attitudes to marine litter.

As well as putting the blame for the crisis firmly at the door of those organisations, people questioned also revealed they have less faith in those agencies’ motivation and competence to address the problem, placing greater trust in scientists and environmental groups to develop effective and lasting solutions.

The research also showed more than 95 per cent of people reported having seen litter when they visited the coast, and such experiences were associated with higher concern and a willingness to adapt personal behaviour to address the problem.

There was also growing appreciation and concern about the threat litter poses to wildlife within the marine environment, vastly outweighing other fears such as the impact on tourism and the fishing and shipping industries.

Those questioned also said that direct releases into the sea and at the coast more likely routes for waste to enter the marine environment than overflows from water treatment or landfill sites.

This chimes with the latest data from MCS beach cleans where ‘on the go’ litter found by volunteers cleaning up the UK coastline has steadily increased in recent years, suggesting that items like single-use coffee cups, stirrers, lids and cutlery are dropped close to the beach or near rivers further inland.

MCS says that one of the major problems in trying to find solutions to marine litter issues is the blame game. “We are all part of the problem and therefore we must all be part of the solution…….but up until now nobody has been keen to put their hands up and say they can do better,” says Emma Cunningham, MCS Pollution Campaigns Officer. “The good news is that programmes like Blue Planet II has resulted in the problem being clearly highlighted so that the buck can no longer be passed. With big names like Wetherspoon’s, McDonald’s and Wimbledon stepping up to the plate and reducing their single plastic use, it’s clear that the blame is being shouldered by some of the biggest players and that can only be a positive thing for our seas. We must move from a throwaway society to a circular economy.”

And when asked about the key factors contributing to the problem, people attributed it predominantly to the use of plastic in products and packaging, human behaviour when disposing of litter, and the single use nature of plastics.

Over 30,000 people signed up to the MCS #STOPthePlasticTide campaign urging the UK Government to put a tax on single use plastics such as coffee cups, cutlery, lids and stirrers.

The charity has also written a book ‘How to Live Plastic Free’ to help people weed out single use plastic from every aspect of their lives including the bathroom, the kitchen, ensuring pet care is plastic free, making the right decisions in the supermarket and much, much more

The research, published in ‘Marine Pollution Bulletin’, is the first European public survey to focus solely on marine litter and people’s attitudes towards it.

Dr Sabine Pahl, Associate Professor (Reader) in the University of Plymouth’s School of Psychology, is the study’s corresponding author. She said: “Marine litter is an issue without borders. But human behaviour in its many forms is the sole source of the problem, and changing perceptions and behaviour is key to preventing litter from continuing to escape into the natural environment. This research gives us useful insights so that we can attempt to motivate action on land that makes a positive change to our coastlines and oceans now and in the future.”

Professor Richard Thompson OBE, Head of the University’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, also contributed to the research. He added: “At a time when there is a broad commitment to address this global crisis, this research presents an interesting conundrum. It is encouraging to see there is growing public awareness of the marine litter problem, but there are clearly challenges to be overcome in convincing people that we all need to be part of the solution. There needs to be an holistic approach which includes governments and industry, scientists and the public, and this research is a useful step in finding ways to communicate that more widely.”

Actions you can take

  1. Join the Plastic Challenge
  2. Join a beach clean
  3. Learn about Deposit Return Systems